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Final Eight Plan keeping quarter of league inactive in free agency

NFL free agency is just two weeks away, and there's much speculation about how it will be during a potentially uncapped year. When I asked one general manager what he expects as we likely head into uncharted waters, he said smart teams have prepared for this situation for years and are in pretty good shape. And after I closely examined all 32 teams, I found that to be true.

What is the Final Eight Plan?

   During the Final League Year, the eight clubs that make the divisional playoffs in the previous season have additional restrictions that limit their ability to sign unrestricted free agents from other clubs. In general, the four clubs participating in the championship games are limited in the number of free agents that they may sign; the limit is determined by the number of their own free agents signing with other clubs. They cannot sign any UFAs unless one of theirs is signed by another team. 

For the four clubs that lost in the divisional playoffs, in addition to having the ability to sign free agents based on the number of their own free agents signing with other clubs, they may also sign players based on specific financial parameters. Those four only will be permitted to sign one unrestricted free agent for $5.5 million (estimated) or more in year one of the contract, plus the number of their UFAs who sign with another team. They also can sign any unrestricted free agents for less than $3.7 (estimated) million in year one of the contract with limitations on the per year increases.

In the case of all final eight teams, the first year salary of UFAs they sign to replace those lost cannot exceed the first year salary of the player lost with limitations on the per year increases.

Fourteen teams don't have an offensive starter headed for unrestricted free agency, and nine teams have all of their veteran defensive starters under contract. Fewer than 30 offensive starters are scheduled for unrestricted free agency, and the contract Tennessee Titans guard Eugene Amano reportedly agreed to on Monday reduced that group by one. About 40 defensive starters also should be unrestricted, but there's a very interesting chapter inside this year's free-agency story.

In an uncapped year, the Final Eight Plan prevents teams that made it to the divisional round of the playoffs from being aggressive in free agency. Those eight teams -- the New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers -- cannot sign unrestricted free agents unless one of theirs goes to another team.

The eight teams have just five offensive starters and eight defensive starters scheduled for unrestricted free agency, and a few of those players likely will be designated with franchise or transition tags. The best teams did a great job of locking up their unrestricted free agents, so there will not be an exodus of talent at the top of the league if an uncapped year, as anticipated, takes place.

Good fortune also has struck those teams in restricted free agency. In an uncapped year, players must have six years of service, instead of four, to become unrestricted free agents. That means fewer players will hit the market.

The final eight teams have 20 total restricted free agents who would be unrestricted in a capped year. Retaining those players will help good football teams stay intact for the 2010 season.

For example, the Chargers will deal with linebacker Shawne Merriman, offensive tackle Marcus McNeil, and wide receiver Vincent Jackson as unrestricted free agents in a capped year, but in an uncapped season like the one most anticipate for 2010, the team can put a high tender on those players and probably not lose their services. The Colts have five players in the same situation. Offensive tackle Charlie Johnson, linebacker Tyjuan Hagler and defensive backs Antoine Bethea, Melvin Bullitt and Marlin Jackson could sign with another team in a capped year, but they most likely will remain in Indianapolis because of their anticipated restricted free-agent status in an uncapped season.

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